Delving into the sea, barrelling down steep mountains and jumping out of planes thousands of feet up in the air are apparently the new order of the day.
It’s not surprising that many dads look for some form of escapism, with worrying about the kids and stress at work, finding a hobby that can transport them away for a few hours is not only important, but some parents would argue, a necessity. However, far from going fishing with their mates over the weekend, it seems modern dads are choosing instead to push the envelope through extreme sports – getting their pulses racing and the adrenaline flowing.
We caught up with skydiving dad Lee Blackledge to get the low-down on what the sport has to offer, hear about his own thrill-seeking experiences and learn how to go about getting involved.
Aside from regularly plummeting from the sky with nothing but a parachute for company, Lee is the Director of his own business and has two sons. A commonly held misconception is that those who pursue extreme sports must be individuals with no ties or responsibilities, and ultimately some form of death-wish; this could not be further from the truth.
Nevertheless, it felt natural to start by finding out what exactly fuels a skydiver?
“I’ve been asked that before but the truth is, I’m not sure. The reason I do the sports that I do, on a personal basis, is escapism. That’s what I like. It’s something that doesn’t relate to anything else in my life, I can’t go to the drop-zone and start worrying about work, worrying about my family, worrying about money and stuff like that, I’ve gone there to jump and I’m off and away. That’s why I do it, it’s my therapy.”
And ultimately whether Lee considers himself an ‘adrenaline junkie’?
“Adrenaline junkie? Probably, because I love the adrenaline side of it otherwise I wouldn’t keep going back. I had an accident a few years ago and it was quite severe, but I still had to go back because there is this indefinable draw that keeps you doing it.”
The question of ‘how you get into extreme sports?’ is undoubtedly an interesting one, many of the sports can seem impossible to access unless you know somebody who already does them. For Lee, it was simply a case of ‘giving it a go’ and finding a real passion for the experience, though not without a few hiccups at first.
“I had always fancied the idea of parachuting but didn’t really know how to go about it and then a good friend of mine fancied joining the TA Parachute Regiment, so I joined that with the intention of parachuting. Unfortunately, they wanted us to do weekends at the time and that wasn’t really an option with having to look after the business.
Anyway, years later my friend Shane started me off again; we got two other guys, found a drop-zone and that was it. I started doing an AFF, which is an accelerated free-fall course which takes you to an altitude of about 15,000 feet and you learn how to free-fall. That’s really it!”
This far into the conversation with Lee, the temptation to ask whether he could describe the feeling of falling out a plane was becoming too much and soon, he offered a rejection that turned out to be truly illuminating.
“No, to be quite honest with you. Skydiving is like skydiving, it’s on its own and there really is nothing comparable to it. People have said it’s a bit like bungee-jumping but I don’t think that’s even close. It’s a leap of faith because although you know what you can do in certain situations, you also know the moment you let go of that plane, you’re committed. You know your parachute is packed OK and it’s going to open but that commitment is indescribable. You just have to do it to understand.”
When dads search for escapism in a hobby, it’s a quest to disappear from the responsibilities in their lives, but does this freedom mean they actually become another person for a few hours? Do they possess a separate personality for those fleeting moments underwater, on the snow or in the air?
For Lee, it’s crystal clear what happens to him when it comes to skydiving.
“You feel yourself become someone different, you become free for a limited period of time. You’re also with like-minded people; the sport doesn’t attract nutters, but just very different people. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in something that included such a broad scope of people, whom I would never mix with normally. You are different because you’re doing something not everyone on this planet can do and you’re doing it with this incredible mix of individuals.”
You could argue this transformation happens every-day when we head to work or when we hang out with a group of friends as opposed to our partners, but there is a feeling that extreme sports takes this one step further. There’s no debating these death-defying activities offer a huge sense of community, as those who get involved instantly share a niche interest and although it may seem cliché, are facing the same high-risk situations together – ones that perhaps only they fully understand.
Surprisingly, with one death for every 100,000 jumps, the fatality rate for skydiving is pretty low and lots of other extreme sports are considered far more life-threatening – however, you would be forgiven for being nervous that fatality rates are being casually mentioned when talking about the sport in the first place.
Despite what the figures may say, there will inevitably be massive highs and dangerous lows, so when things go wrong, whether you like it or not, your life is in the hands of what you’ve been taught and above all else, luck. Lee vividly recalls his lowest point.
“I went to Florida with a big group of guys and girls, just to skydive. We got there and had a few bad weather days where we couldn’t jump and everyone was gagging to do something and then the weather slightly improved and we were allowed to jump. It was very border-line and you had to be experienced to do it. I was experienced but if I’m honest, I was probably a little bit out of my depth.
Anyway, I’d gone out and everything was fine, I was a long way out but I was coming back in and what I did, and I can only blame myself for this, not skydiving, was make an error under canopy. I did what is called a low-turn and with the winds being as high as they were at that time, collapsed my canopy at around 25ft, so there was suddenly nothing above me and I slammed into the ground.”
Lee reels of the list of injuries on an imaginary checklist:
“Four broken vertebrae, one neck bone, my sternum and multiple rib fractures; I broke so many of them they couldn’t actually count so they just labelled it ‘multiple’ and I knocked my two front teeth out as well, which made me look very attractive [Laughter].”
The fact that Lee can look back at his injuries, and the terrible ordeal that followed, including hospital transfers, x-rays and eventually surgery, and still find a chuckle, is testament to his character; but has it changed the way he looks at ‘his’ sport?
“Yes. I’m a different skydiver now obviously, where before I became complacent which contributed to the accident, just because I had done enough jumps and everything had gone fine on each one, I think I was up to around 180 jumps, my canopy opened every time and I got back to the drop-zone fine, not one issue. I’m not as reckless as I know accidents can happen and I only jump when it’s near as perfect weather as you can get. If it’s too cloudy or too gusty I won’t jump and I’m happy not to whereas before it was do or die to jump. I’m happy to head to the Drop-Zone and even if the lads are jumping, I can say this is not for me.”
The best way for dads to find out what they should know before setting off on their own skydiving adventure is straight from the horse’s mouth. It can be easy to just throw yourself into the latest craze, but as Lee explains, there are a few things to think about before you go hurtling towards your nearest site.
“There are a good few factors with skydiving. Obviously it’s readily available, it’s far more accessible now than it was when I first started, not that I started a million years ago but it’s moved on so much and there’s so much more information about how to go about it and getting started. Really what you need to do is look at budget; it’s not going to be a cheap thing to do. To get yourself up and running, I couldn’t tell you exactly how much, but it’s a good few thousand pounds to get yourself qualified to skydive.
Then it’s your time, you can’t go one week and then leave it for two months when you’re learning. You need to be current all the time and commit a certain amount of time which becomes a juggling act. So if you start the training and don’t keep up your levels within an allotted time, then you get put back levels. So budget and time, ask yourself can you commit to it?”
Having been privileged enough to get a true insight into skydiving during our chat, it’s clear that the sport carries unbelievable significance in Lee’s life, it’s an integral part of his identity that no accident could ever diminish and following his injuries, actually helped show him just how much support he can count on from those around him.
Perhaps the real lure of extreme sports is that not only do they offer us a freedom from the every-day routine, but by reaffirming our mortality, they force us to look more closely at what, and who, is most important in our lives.